I must be the next-to-last person in the world to spend significant lengths of time experimenting with these, but for the benefit of the last person in the world, I’d like to talk about USB flash drives, also known as thumb drives (for a brand name), pen drives, or keychain drives, because they’re small enough to fit on a keychain.They are, as that popular brand name suggests, about the size of your thumb. It’s possible to buy one that holds as little as 64 megabytes of data, which is still a lot of Word and Excel files, but currently the sweet spot seems to be 512 megabytes or 1 GB. This is, of course, always a moving target, but as I write, it’s entirely possible to find a 512-meg drive for around $40, although sometimes you have to deal with rebates to get the price that low. It’s harder, but still possible, to get a 1 GB drive for under $90. That will change. Currently a 2 GB drive is more than $200.
I remember when people went ga-ga over a 1 GB hard drive priced at an astounding $399. That price was astoundingly low, and that was only 10 years ago. Progress marches on, and sometimes progress really is an improvement.
The drives are so small because they use flash memory–a type of readable/writable memory chip that doesn’t lose its contents when it loses power. It’s not as fast as RAM, and it’s a lot more expensive, and its lifespan is much more finite, so you won’t see flash memory replacing your computer’s RAM any time soon. But as a replacement for the floppy disk, it’s ideal. It’s fast, it’s compatible, and unlike writable CDs and DVDs, they require no special software or hardware to write.
The drive plugs into a USB port, which is present on nearly every computer made since about 1997. Use with Windows 98 will almost certainly require the installation of a driver (hopefully your drive comes with either a driver or a web site you can use to download a driver–check compatibility before you buy one for Win98), but with Windows 2000, XP, and Mac OS X, these devices should just plug in and work, for the most part. With one Windows 2000 box, I had to reboot after plugging the drive in the first time.
From then on, it just looks like a hard drive. You can edit files from it, or drag files onto it. If the computer has USB 2.0 ports, its speed rivals that of a hard drive. It’s pokier on the older, more common USB 1.1 ports, but still very tolerable.
The only thing you have to remember is to stop the device before you yank it out of the USB port, to avoid data loss. Windows 2000 and XP provide an icon in the system tray for this.
These are great as a personal backup device. They’re small enough to carry with you anywhere–the small flashlight I keep on my keychain is bigger than most of these drives–and it only take a few minutes to copy, so you can copy those files to computers belonging to friends or relatives for safekeeping.
If your only interest in a laptop is carrying work with you–as opposed to being able to cruise the net in trendy coffee shops while you drink a $5 cup of coffee–a pen drive makes a very affordable alternative to a laptop. Plug one into your work computer, copy your files, and take work home with you. Take it on the road and you can plug it into any available computer to do work. It’s not the same as having your computer with you all the time, but for many people, it’s more than good enough, and the drives make a Palm Pilot look portly, let alone a laptop.
So how do you maximize the usable space on these devices? The ubiquitous Zip and Unzip work well, and you can download small command-line versions from info-zip.org. If you want something more transparent, there’s an old PC Magazine utility from 1997, confusingly named UnFrag, that reduces the size of many Word and Excel files. Saving in older file formats can also reduce the size, and it increases the possibility of being able to work elsewhere. Some computers still only have Office 97.
You may be tempted to reformat the drive as NTFS and turn on compression. Don’t. Some drives respond well to NTFS and others stop working. But beyond that, NTFS’s overhead makes it impractical for drives smaller than a couple of gigs (like most flash drives), and you probably want your drive to be readable in as many computers as possible. So FAT is the best option, being the lowest common denominator.
To maximize the lifespan of these drives, reduce the number of times you write to it. It’s better to copy your files to a local hard drive, edit them there, then copy them back to the flash drive. But in practice, their life expectancy is much longer than that of a Zip or floppy drive or a CD-RW. Most people are going to find the device is obsolete before it fails.
The technologically savvy can even install Linux on one of these drives. As long as a computer is capable of booting off a USB device, then these drives can be used either as a data recovery tool, or as a means to run Linux on any available computer. 512 megabytes is enough to hold a very usable Linux distribution and still leave some space for data.